What Impact Does Accountability Have On Curriculum, Standards and Engagement In Education?

Frances Brill, Hilary Grayson, Lisa Kuhn and Sharon O’Donnell

14 September 2018

In the UK, as in many other countries, schools are held accountable for their ability to provide high quality education that leads to strong educational outcomes. To support discussions about accountability system reforms, NFER produced a rapid literature review on the impact of accountability on curriculum, standards and engagement. We reviewed a small body of the best available evidence on the accountability systems in Australia (New South Wales), England, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and Wales. We focused on evidence relating to primary education. The literature offers useful insights, though there was a lack of data and robust, quantitative evidence.

Key Findings


  • Where pupil performance is used as a high stakes accountability measure, there is concern that schools prioritise certain parts of the curriculum over others (‘teaching to the test’).
  • Where accountability systems focus on “borderline” or “cliff edge” measures, targeted teaching may limit some pupils’ experience of the school curriculum.
  • International benchmarking can markedly affect curriculum policy.


  • To support school effectiveness, accountability systems should feature:
    • clear responsibilities
    • coherent, aligned objectives at all levels
    • transparent performance assessment criteria.
  • Accountability measures can increase or decrease the achievement gap; it is all in the application.


  • Teacher education can support teachers’ engagement with assessment data to inform classroom teaching and learning.
  • The extent to which pupils’ experiences of assessments, such as test anxiety, specifically relate to accountability is unclear.  
  • Placing undue emphasis on the performance of some groups at the expense of others may lessen pupil engagement.